Politicians all over the region feel that they are entitled. They believe they are entitled to live high on the hog and when attending conferences, seminars and conventions associated with their official duties, they go out to dinner and like true cheapskates, they stick the taxpayers with the tab. This article is the second in which WJLA shows how the Montgomery County Board of Education blows money on expensive meals for officials.
THE CHESAPEAKE TODAY has filed a Public Information Request to the St. Mary’s County Government for a list of all out-of-county travel, hotels, expenses and costs associated with attending such conferences for the past two fiscal years. The County Attorney was specifically requested to not include the Social Security numbers of those involved as was the case in the last request made for all salaries and overtime for the St. Mary’s Sheriff’s Department. Note that government officials skip modern conveniences for using computers to participate in Webinars, and that all conferences are always held at beach or golf resorts.
MCPS reimburses BOE members for lavish meals, triple-digit taxi fares and more
ROCKVILLE, Md. (WJLA) – There’s intensified scrutiny because of credit card charges, made by Montgomery County Board of Education members and their office support staff.
In May, ABC7 first reported on questionable board member expense accounts. Now some six weeks later, Maryland’s premier school district released a new batch of documents, outlining what board staffers have purchased, often on behalf of their elected board members.
Lobster Tail & Sea Bass:
In Oct. 2013, members Chris Barclay, Shirley Brandman, Phil Kauffman, Justin Kim, Pat O’Neill, and Rebecca Smondrowski enjoyed a gourmet dinner with Superintendent Joshua Starr, BOE chief of staff Roland Ikheloa, and staff assistant Laura Steinberg. The meal was at Fager’s Island restaurant during the annual Maryland Association of Boards of Education (MABE) conference in Ocean City. An itemized bill obtained by ABC7 lists $15 seafood appetizers, and lavish entrees like the $42 surf and turf, $39 lobster tail and $33 sea bass. The entire dinner-for-nine cost taxpayers $509.
“These are dollars that Montgomery County teachers desperately need for supplies, textbooks and resources, and you’re buying the appetizer and the lobster,” Janis Sartucci, a leading member of the Parents’ Coalition of Montgomery County, remarked.
Big Yellow Taxi:
Records also show board member Dr. Judy Docca, unable to drive because of health issues, routinely takes private taxis to board-related meetings. One roundtrip to St. Mary’s County cost $457 dollars alone. All told, MCPS, which claims it’s simply following federal disability laws, paid $3,378.43 in Docca’s fares from Nov. 2013 through March 2014. Docca, who resides in Montgomery Village, continues to use a taxi to conduct business to this day.
ABC7’s Kevin Lewis: “Do you think that’s money well spent?”
Dr. Judy Docca: “Well in terms of my service, yes.”
ABC7’s Kevin Lewis: “You don’t feel like you could have done those meetings remotely?”
Dr. Judy Docca: “No.”
ABC7’s Kevin Lewis: “Why’s that?”
Dr. Judy Docca: “Well that’s why the board sits around the table. Otherwise we’d all be Skyping.”
When asked if she would consider using MetroAccess, a door-to-door transit service for the disabled, Docca balked at the suggestion, calling the system, “terribly unreliable.”
“If a teacher has a bad back or is injured, how do they get to school? Do we send taxis for every teacher that has back surgery,” Sartucci added.
The Executive’s Ball:
Each year, MCPS also pays for board members to attend countless school and community-based luncheons, galas, mixers, banquets, and silent auctions. High on that list, the annual Montgomery County Executive’s Ball, which costs $125 to attend. Last year, the school system purchased tickets for Pat O’Neill’s husband and Phil Kauffman’s wife.
Records show O’Neill reimbursed the school district within two weeks of the Nov. 2013 event. Kauffman however didn’t write a check until June 2, two weeks after ABC7 aired its original story calling certain board member spending practices into question.
“I was told by Board staff that there was an extra ticket at our table that my wife could use. I was not aware at the time that the ticket had been purchased with Board funds and when it was brought to my attention, I reimbursed the district,” Kauffman said in a written statement Thursday.
Tires, Groceries & Dry Cleaning:
Board member Chris Barclay took a considerable amount of heat for 14 unauthorized purchases he made with his school district credit card. During a one-on-one sit-down interview, Barclay told ABC7 he “accidentally” used his taxpayer-funded credit card all 14 times, but Barclay isn’t alone.
The new batch of records released by MCPS, show BOE chief of staff Roland Ikheloa also fell victim to “mistaken usage” on five separate occasions between April 2012 and Oct. 2013. The charges, which topped $750, included a $581.87 purchase at Mr. Tire in Rockville.
On Thursday, Ikheloa vowed each charge was merely an oversight, adding that he repaid MCPS “immediately.” Records however show the staffer took anywhere from 30-70 days to refund the school district, depending on the charge.
MCPS BOE 2.0:
In April, MCPS formed a special committee to dramatically overhaul its credit card policies for pertaining to the entire BOE office. Among the proposed new guidelines: restricting hotel stays in the Washington, D.C. area, eliminating room service during conferences, and the ability to buy meals for constituents, politicians, and lobbyists locally or afar.
The entire board will vote on the laundry list of recommendations during a meeting on July 28.
“We had too many interpretations of what was appropriate and what was not appropriate. The fact that all board members will now know, here are the rules going forward, that’s what’s going to be fixed,” Kauffman, who chairs the credit card committee, stated.
“Nothing has changed. This is exactly the same kind of spending we saw back in 2008 when we requested documents back then. The same exact kind of extravagant spending that existed back then, exits today. Actions, in my opinion, speak louder than words,” Sartucci concluded.